Rediscovering ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL

This is one of a series of essays that I wrote in 2007 about four Fassbinder films for Madman, the Australian DVD label. The other three — on Martha, Katzelmacher, and The Bitter Tea of Petra von Kant – can be found elsewhere on this site. —J.R.

I’m still trying to figure out what I think of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982). An awesomely prolific filmmaker (he turned out seven features in 1970 alone), he became the height of Euro-American fashion during the mid-70s, then went into nearly total eclipse after his death from a drug overdose –- reminding    us that the fates of the fashionable can often be precarious.

Openly bisexual, tyrannical on his sets, and habitually dressed in a leather jacket, Fassbinder cut a starlike figure in the firmament of New German Cinema, though he was hardly alone. If the French New Wave of the 60s was mainly about films, the New German Cinema of the 70s was mainly about filmmakers, and each of the best-known directors had a claim to fame that was mainly a matter of public image: eccentric exhibitionism crossed with German romanticism (Werner Herzog), existentialist hip crossed with black attire and rock ‘n’ roll (Wim Wenders), Wagnerian pronouncements (Hans-Jürgen Syberberg), a dandy’s stupefied worship of shrines and divas (Werner Schroeter), and so on.… Read more »

Moving (May-June 1977)

Written as a column for the May-June 1977 Film Comment. Some of the details here are dated, I think, in an interesting manner — especially the discussion of “Disco-Vision”. I should add that the only version of MIKEY AND NICKY that had been released in the mid-70s was an unfinished edit by Elaine May that the studio had taken away from her and put out without her consent. -– J.R.

***

The world had gone crazy, said the crazy man in his cell. What was nutty was that the movie folk were trafficking in illusions in the real world but the real world thought that its reality could only be found in the illusions. Two sets of maniacs.

– Walker Percy, Lancelot

 

Compare the ads for NETWORK and CARWASH. The former conjures up a hot exposé, a “real” behind-the-scenes glimpse of What Goes On behind the moneyed façade of big-time broadcasting; the latter suggests a frivolous, “irresponsible” fantasy to be seen for fun, not edification. Moving back to the U.S. after over seven years abroad — a sudden shift from reflective Paris chrome and ashen London gray to La Jolla baby-blue, from cinema to some medieval state of pre-cinema or post-Cinema — the foreignness and familiarity of the country both seem epitomized by the absurdity of that cockeyed distinction, which virtually gets it all backwards.… Read more »

Anthony Mann/Laurence Harvey/Mia Farrow/Steve Brodie/Audrey Long

A DANDY IN ASPIC, directed by Anthony Mann (and Laurence Harvey, uncredited), with Harvey and Mia Farrow (1968, 107 min.) + DESPERATE, directed by Anthony Mann, with Steve Brodie and Audrey Long (1947, 73 min.)

Spurred by some comments from Brad Stevens in the chatgroup “a film by,” I finally catch up with Anthony Mann’s last film, A Dandy in Aspic -– a convoluted spy thriller set in London and Berlin that was completed by its star, Laurence Harvey, after producer-director Mann died in the middle of shooting. It appears that most of the handsomely framed London exteriors are Mann’s work while the excessive use of zooms in the Berlin exteriors and elsewhere are most likely the work of Harvey. Anyway, this is an interesting test-case for auteurists, because, as Stevens notes, there are plenty of thematic as well as stylistic traits here that one can associate with Mann, but at the same time -– dare I say it? -– much of the film strikes me as as being terrible in spite of this. The key problems for me are the lead performances by Harvey and Farrow, both of whom strike me as being so far adrift from recognizable human behavior that one can accept their characters only as theorems and/or abstractions, metaphysical or otherwise.… Read more »

Aspects of ANATAHAN

From the January-February 1978 issue of Film Comment, with a few tweaks added in June 2010. I’ve also included, at the very end of this piece, a photograph of the real-life survivors of Anatahan that I found on the Internet. And to clarify the mimetic form of this piece, which has nine sections corresponding to the nine sections of Sternberg’s film, I’ve number each of those sections, for the first time.

This was written while I was teaching film at the University of California, San Diego and was able to study a 16-millimeter print of Anatahan that I was using in a course. This article was reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), where I added the following: “One of the critical commonplaces about THE SAGA OF ANATAHAN is that everything in the film with the exception of the ocean waves is artificial and created, and Sternberg has often been uncritically quoted as saying that the only thing he regretted in the film were these waves, precisely because they were not of his making. But to accept this statement is to ignore one of the key sequences in the film — the newsreel segment of Japanese soldiers returning home after the war — and to misconstrue the meaning of the artifice in the remainder of the film as a consequence.” I continue to find this sequence extremely moving, and suspect that my failure to find any stills from it on the Internet is a direct consequence of the misrepresentations of Sternberg as well as many of his critics.Read more »

The Language of Objects [THE WAR OF THE ROSES]

From the Chicago Reader (December 15, 1989). — J.R.

THE WAR OF THE ROSES

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Danny DeVito

Written by Michael Leeson

With Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, DeVito, Marianne Sagebrecht, Sean Astin, and Heather Fairfield.

The proper tone for Danny DeVito’s second feature is set by a very short Matt Groening cartoon that precedes every print. A brief cadenza on familial hatred and violence is played out in a therapist’s office, where most of the hatred and violence is directed at the therapist, uniting the family in the process. The War of the Roses opens with another sort of therapist — Danny DeVito as high-priced lawyer Gavin D’Amato — talking to a client in his office. The landscape outside D’Amato’s office looks unusually fake, and DeVito’s delivery seems as self-consciously overarticulated as some of Woody Allen’s recent performances — to mix a metaphor, one can almost see the chalk marks in his verbal punctuation — but both of these oddities actually serve the story he is about to tell about a marriage and its demise.

Unlike the therapist in the Groening cartoon, D’Amato stands mostly outside the story he is telling, and he clearly represents the voice of reason rather than part of the problem.… Read more »

Where the Boys Are [BULL DURHAM]

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1988). — J.R.

BULL DURHAM

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Ron Shelton

With Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Trey Wilson, Robert Wuhl, and Jenny Robertson.

I cannot tell a lie: Bull Durham gave me so much old-fashioned moviegoing pleasure the first time around, in spite of my complete lack of interest in baseball, that I wasn’t too concerned about the sources of my fun. Entertaining movies are often deft at discouraging reflection. But two weeks later, when I went back to see this one again — mainly to refresh my memory — I came out feeling a little embarrassed about how and why I’d been taken in.

It’s not that the movie doesn’t have its share of singular virtues, especially considering that it’s Ron Shelton’s first feature as a director (he also wrote the script). Genuine star performances — as opposed to those in hyped-up vehicles like Big, Red Heat, The Presidio, and Big Business – are not all that commonplace these days, and Shelton gets them here from both Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon. He also strikes a very satisfying balance between the fast and furious dialogue — much of it slangy, staccato jargon that reflects Shelton’s ball-playing backgroundand the transitional montage sequences, overlaid with pop songs, that allow us to glide and drift between the gabfests.… Read more »

Ivan the Bearable

This interview appeared in The Soho News, July 15, 1981. –J.R.

Ivan the Bearable

A very likeable guy, this Ivan Passer. When he tells a story, he knows just how to pace it out dramatically, in filmic terms — a trait he shares with Samuel Fuller, who virtually stages movie sequences in the course odf describing them. A very different kind of director who also has a special feeling for outcasts, Passer pursues a subtle way of his own. A Czech in exile, he suavely took over my attention with the quiet intensity of a small, spry Ancient Mariner.

I had been knocked out by his passionate Cutter’s Way. Under the title Cutter and Bone, the movie had already been aptly praised in these pages by Seth Cagin and Veronica Geng — right around the same time that it was getting abruptly snatched from release — and it was a pleasure to find it living up to its notices.

It’s hard to be precise about the doleful yet personable wit projected by Passer — a matter of style, feeling and attitude more than taste or opinion –but it helps if you’ve seen one of his movies. Born in 1933, he started out as a scriptwriter for Milos Forman in Czechoslovakia, where he also made Intimate Lighting, his first feature, in 1966.… Read more »

BREATHLESS as Film Criticism

Written in 2007 for Criterion, as the commentary for a DVD extra. — J.R.

“As a critic, I already thought of myself as a filmmaker” Godard said in 1962. “Today I still consider myself a critic, and in a sense, I’m even more of one than before. Instead of criticism, I make a film, but that includes a  critical dimension. I consider myself an essayist, producing essays in the form of novels or novels in the form of essays: only instead of writing, I film them.”

Three years before he said this, Godard made the first shot in his first feature, appearing just before the title, the explicit declaration of a film critic: “This film is dedicated to Monogram Pictures.”

Why Monogram? Godard never reviewed anything from that studio, which lasted from 1931 to 1953 and mainly produced cheap westerns and series like the Bowery Boys. But shooting on the fly and without sync sound, he wanted to express an alliance to an aesthetic related to impoverished budgets. So this wasn’t any sort of fan’s homage, as it would have been if it had come from one of the American movie brats; it was a critical statement of aims and boundaries.Read more »

Three Key Moments from Three Alain Resnais Films

Here are three of the 40-odd short pieces I wrote for Chris Fujiwara’s excellent, 800-page volume Defining Moments in Movies (London: Cassell, 2007), each of which describes an extraordinary scene from an Alain Resnais film involving camera movement. (There’s also a pretty amazing crane shot in Wild Grass, by the way.) — J.R.

***

1961 / Last Year at Marienbad - The camera rushes repeatedly through the doors of Delphine Seyrig’s bedroom and into her arms.

France/Italy. Director: Alain Resnais. Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi. Original title:L’année dernière à Marienbad.

Why It’s Key: A climax of erotic reverie in a film of erotic reveries.

Alain Resnais’ most radical departure from Alain Robbe-Grillet’s published screenplay for Last Year at Marienbad is his elimination of what Robbe-Grillet calls a “rather swift and brutal rape scene”. In this ravishing puzzle film about an unnamed man (Giorgio Albertazzi) in a swank, old-style hotel trying to persuade another guest (Delphine Seyrig), also unnamed, that they met and had sex there the previous year, illustrated throughout by subjective imaginings that might be either his or hers, Resnais includes only the beginning of such a scene when the man enters the woman’s bedroom and she moves back in fear.… Read more »

Two Takes on the Truth

From the April 6, 2007 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

THE HOAX * DIRECTED BY LASSE HALLSTROM

WRITTEN BY WILLIAM WHEELER, FROM A BOOK BY CLIFFORD IRVING WITH RICHARD GERE, ALFRED MOLINA, HOPE DAVIS, MARCIA GAY HARDEN, STANLEY TUCCI, AND JULIE DELPY

THE CATS OF MIRIKITANI***  DIRECTED BY LINDA HATTENDORF

There are ways both official and unofficial to describe “the movies.” There’s the new releases the industry decides to push in the malls, and then there’s everything else, which we’re obliged to root out for ourselves. A schoolteacher I know in the wilds of Argentina selects and projects DVDs on a regular basis, and some of the stuff he shows — old experimental shorts, recent features by Abbas Kiarostami, Alexander Sokurov, and Gus Van Sant — is pretty specialized. But he must know his audience at least as well as any studio, because his screenings draw about 800 people a week.

I’d like to think that kind of niche viewing is the wave of the future, something that will put a lot of mall fare to shame. And applying this notion to a couple of features opening this week, I’d like to think that a quietly precious piece of artfully arranged storytelling like The Cats of Mirikitani and a brassy piece of bluster like The Hoax represent respectively the future and present of movies.… Read more »

Michel Gondry: Coping with the Metaphysics of Overload

The following short essay was commissioned by the Walker Art Center in early 2007 for a brochure accompanying a retrospective (“Michel Gondry: The Science of Dreams”) presented between May 11 and June 23, and a Regis Dialogue that I conducted with him on June 23. –J.R.

What’s sometimes off-putting about the postmodernity of music videos is tied to both the presence and absence of history in them — the dilemma of being faced simultaneously with too much and too little. On the one hand, one sees something superficially resembling the entire history of art — often encompassing capsule histories of architecture, painting, sculpture, dance, theater, and film — squeezed into three-to-five-minute slots. The juxtapositions and overlaps that result can be so violent and incongruous that the overall effect is sometimes roughly akin to having a garbage can emptied onto one’s head. Yet on the other hand, radical foreshortenings and shotgun marriages of this kind often have the effect of abolishing history altogether, making every vestige of the past equal and equivalent to every other via the homogenizing effect of TV itself. Back in 1990, sitting through nearly eight hours of a touring show called “Art of Music Video,” I was appalled to discover that the two most obvious forerunners of music videos, soundies from the 40s and Scopitone from the 60s, were neither included in the show nor even acknowledged in its catalog’s history of the genre.… Read more »

Reasons to Believe [SEE YOU IN THE MORNING & SAY ANYTHING...]

From the Chicago Reader (April 28, 1989). — J.R.

SEE YOU IN THE MORNING

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Alan J. Pakula

With Jeff Bridges, Alice Krige, Farrah Fawcett, Drew Barrymore, Lukas Haas, David Dukes, Frances Sternhagen, George Hearn, Theodore Bikel, and Linda Lavin.

SAY ANYTHING . . .

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Cameron Crowe

With John Cusack, Ione Skye, John Mahoney, Lili Taylor, Amy Brooks, Pamela Segall, and Jason Gould.

Optimistic movies that are halfway believable — that base their hope on plausible characters and events rather than Hollywood magic — have become something of a rarity. These days the only optimism we seem able to abide comes from “inspirational” fantasies such as E.T. and (to cite a more current example) Field of Dreams, which offer little more than the satisfaction of infantile wish fulfillment. So the appearance of two better-than-average movies with optimistic attitudes, both of them personal romantic comedies credited to single writer-directors, is an encouraging sign at a time when the commercial American cinema seems to be teetering on the edge of a faceless, mechanical void.

There’s nothing really startling about either Say Anything. . . , Cameron Crowe’s first feature, or See You in the Morning, Alan J.… Read more »

Sampling in Rotterdam

Written for Trafic no. 26, Summer 1998, and published there in French translation; it has also appeared in English in the collection I coedited with Adrian Martin, Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia. – J.R.

 

This year [1998] the Rotterdam Film Festival ran for twelve days in late January and early February. But I could only attend the first half — five days apart from opening  night. And thanks to a vidéothèque at the festival with copies of most of the films being shown -– including many that were scheduled for the festival’s second half -– l found myself alternating most days between screenings at the Pathé and the Lantaren, the festival’s two multiplexes, where I was always watching something with an audience (between twenty and several hundred people), and solitary sessions with earphones at the vidéothèque  (located on the ground floor of the Hotel Central, which served as Gestapo headquarters during the war).

HotelCentral

A few other facts: I managed to see about forty films and videos, but only ten of these were full features; I also, for one reason or another, walked out of or only sampled five other features at the multiplexes and wound up fast-forwarding my way through one other feature at the Central – Gunnar Bergdahl’s documentary The Voice of Bergman (1997), where I went looking for Bergman’s dismissal of Dreyer as a filmmaker who made only two films of value, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Day of Wrath (1943).… Read more »

My Contributions to DVDs and Blu-Rays

A fairly complete and reasonably up to date checklist. All of the printed essays listed here are available on this site. – J. R.

DriverX4SONY DSC

 

stageandspectaclecover   eclipse-more shots of site

mikey and nicky DVD    BiggerThanLifeMason

ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL (Madman DVD, Australia: original essay)

BIGGER THAN LIFE (BFI DVD, U.K.; video conversation with Jim Jarmusch)

THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT (Madman DVD, Australia: original essay)

BREATHLESS (Criterion DVD & Blu-Ray, U.S.; scripted video essay)

CASA DE LAVA (Second Run Features DVD, U.K.: original essay)

LA CÉRÉMONIE (Home Vision Entertainment DVD, U.S.: reprinted essay)

CLOSE-UP (Criterion DVD & Blu-Ray; audio commentary with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa)

THE COMPLETE JACQUES TATI (Criterion Blu-Ray box set, U.S.: original essay)

THE COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN (Criterion DVD box set, U.S.: original essay & audio commentary with James Naremore)

CONFIDENTIAL REPORT (Madman DVD, Australia: original essay)

CRUMB (Criterion DVD & Blu-Ray, U.S.: original essay)

DAVID HOLZMAN’S DIARY (Second Run Features DVD, U.K., & Survivance DVD, France: original essay)

DAY OF WRATH (Madman DVD, Australia: original essay)

LES DEMOISELLES DE ROCHEFORT (BFI DVD, U.K, and Criterion Jacques Demy DVD box set, U.S.: reprinted essay)

DRIVER X 4: THE LOST AND FOUND FILMS OF SARA DRIVER (Films We Like DVD box set, Canada: video interview)

DRÔLE DE DRAME (Home Vision Entertainment DVD, U.S.: original essay)

L’ECLISSE (Criterion DVD & Blu-Ray, U.S.: reprinted essay)

EMILE DE ANTONIO box set (Home Vision Entertainment DVD, U.S.: reprinted essay on MR.… Read more »

Sex and the Single Guy

From the Chicago Reader (November 19, 2004). — J.R.

Alfie

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Charles Shyer

Written by Elaine Pope and Shyer

With Jude Law, Marisa Tomei, Omar Epps, Nia Long, Jane Krakowski, Sienna Miller, and Susan Sarandon

After the Sunset

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Brett Ratner

Written by Paul Zbyszewski and Craig Rosenberg

With Pirece Prosnan, Salma Hayek, Woody HArrelson, Naomie Harris, and Don Cheadle

The terrible thing about most remakes is that they downgrade borrowed experience. I’ve never been a big fan of the 1966 Alfie, a precise, bittersweet portrait of a misogynistic cockney lady-killer in a sordidly downscale London. But it’s unequivocally a reflection of things that have been lived, above all by Bill Naughton (adapting his own play) and Michael Caine (whose cockney background helped make the title role indelibly his own). The special kind of music these two make together, under Lewis Gilbert’s efficient direction, matches the brashness of Sonny Rollins’s score and tenor sax solos.

So what would motivate a remake? Director and cowriter Charles Shyer seems to think he’s come up with contemporary counterparts. He also seems to think the class consciousness, cockney accents, English settings, fleshed-out characters, social milieu, and period of the original are all expendable — raising the question of what Alfie is without them.… Read more »